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Rhythm Nation Redux: Why Janet Jackson still matters

It's been more than 10 years since Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake performed during the Super Bowl XXXVIII Halftime Show, an event made infamous when what was later called a "wardrobe malfunction" resulted in one of Jackson's breasts being briefly revealed, apparently causing half of America to spill its beer and choke on its chicken wings.

The incident - and Jackson's starring role in it - returned briefly to the public consciousness when the NFL announced recently that Timberlake will be the featured Halftime Show performer for Super Bowl LII in 2018.

It's unfair that a moment 13 years ago obscures a simple fact: Janet Jackson is the most relevant and culturally enduring mainstream American female artist of her era, the second half of the 1980s.

Sorry, Madonna. You had the sex, but Janet had the soul. And that soulfulness was on full display throughout "Rhythm Nation 1814," the album that remains Jackson's greatest work. It will form a healthy portion of her current tour, "State of the World 2017," which stops here Nov. 4 at the KeyBank Center.

On Oct. 20, Jackson offered this post on her Facebook page: "On this day in 1989, 'Rhythm Nation' was released. We are a nation divided by injustice brought together with music. True in 1989, just as relevant today. #StateOfTheWorld."

That's a nice way to frame her current tour, for it is indeed a "Rhythm Nation" song that gives the jaunt its name, and several songs from the album form pivot points in the set list. That music - its confident blend of then still-young hip-hop with funk, pop and R&B tropes incredibly groundbreaking at the time - has endured far better than that of most of Jackson's contemporaries, Madonna among them. The reason for that enduring resonance lies in Jackson's desire to make music that both reflected the times and transcended them by emphasizing universal concerns.

“I re-listened to those artists who moved me most when I was younger ... Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, Marvin Gaye," Jackson told journalist David Ritz in a 1990 Rolling Stone cover story, right smack in the middle of "Rhythm Nation 1814's" lengthy run at or near the top of the charts. "These were people who woke me up to the responsibility of music. They were beautiful singers and writers who felt for others. They understood suffering.”

At 51, with seven previous immaculately produced world tours and untold human experience under her belt, Jackson now stands poised to do what so many of her pop peers have failed to do - to pull music from their past firmly into the present, and simultaneously make an artistic statement that applies to the here and now.

Jackson seems to be aware of the weight of her moment, as a September review of the tour on makes plain. "While 'State of the World" was a history lesson in the form of a musical art performance, stacked with crisp choreography and pop hits that reflected the decades they dominated, it was also a subtle hint that she is well aware of our nation’s current social and political climate," the review reads, going on to praise Jackson for making "daring (political and social) statements that peeled off a layer to expose the person behind the legacy."

Nearly 30 years later, "Rhythm Nation" does not often get the accolades it deserves, though its  musical influence can be spotted all over contemporary marriages of pop, soul, R&B and hip-hop, from Beyonce to Rihanna and back again. Perhaps this tour will rectify that situation. When we mention Janet Jackson today, we should not be referring to Half-Time Show mishaps, but rather, to real-time musical influence.

Janet Jackson's State of the World 2017 Tour

8 p.m. Nov. 4 in KeyBank Center. Tickets are $39.95 to $125.95. ( box office,


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